David C. Levy, an art historian, photographer and jazz saxophone player in painter Larry Rivers's band, is expected to be named today to the newly designated job of president and director of the Corcoran.
Until last year, when he became chancellor for the arts at the New School for Social Research in New York, Levy, 52, was chief administrator of the Parsons School of Design there, a post he held for 19 years.
His appointment is subject to a vote by the full Corcoran board today, but is expected to pass. Levy has refused to comment until the vote is in. "We want to do it right this time," said board Chairman Elinor Farquhar.
After an 11-month search, which produced 30 candidates with the help of a head-hunting firm, Levy was chosen unanimously by a search committee that sought to avoid the ill-informed directorial choices sometimes made in the past. "We've checked out everything but his trash," said one search committee member who didn't want to be identified. "We are not only assured, but inspired."
For the first time in the Corcoran's history -- and reflecting the board's new determination to democratize itself -- the search committee was made up of representatives from every aspect of the Corcoran community, including museum staff, school faculty, volunteer groups, trustees and even students.
"There was a real collaboration and total respect," said Corcoran School professor Martha McWilliams, who served on the search committee. "We felt very listened to, and that it was our expertise and knowledge that was guiding them. In the past, it's always been just about the museum: This was about the museum and the school, a conversation among all the components of the Corcoran for the first time."
If approved, Levy will preside over a newly clarified governing arrangement, under which he will be CEO and artistic director of both the Corcoran Gallery and the Corcoran School, with the titles of both president and director. Under his direction, a dean will manage the school and a deputy director will run the museum. Levy will represent both parts of the institution to the board, on which he will have a nonvoting seat. "It's a pyramid, reflecting the new administrative structure of the institution," said Farquhar.
The job of deputy director of the museum is still open, said Farquhar, as is the dean's position. "I think anybody who heads an organization ought to be able to build their own team," she said.
News of the new administrative arrangement is likely to quell early qualms about Levy's relatively low profile and inexperience in the museum world.
In art school circles, however, Levy is widely known and admired as the gifted and entrepreneurial chief administrative officer at Parsons, where he started out 29 years ago as director of admissions. After Parsons merged with the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, Levy was appointed executive dean and chief administrative officer of the combined institutions.
Under his leadership, Parsons grew from a tiny, financially moribund school of 550 students into the largest private college of art and design in the United States, with an enrollment of more than 11,000 full- and part-time students. The school has campuses in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and the Dominican Republic, with another planned for Japan. Though Parsons teaches everything from fine arts to graphic and product design, it is best known for its program in fashion design.
Levy's interest in jazz also led him to institute a four-year bachelor's degree program in jazz and contemporary music.
Levy has admirers among those who have worked for him, including Al Nodal, former director of the Washington Project for the Arts, now manager of cultural affairs for the City of Los Angeles. While Nodal was director of exhibitions at Otis/Parsons in L.A., he said, Levy was "one of the few people in New York who supported my efforts ... to reclaim an historic inner-city park through a public arts and performance program and community involvement. He actually came from New York and spent time, and gained some understanding of what we were doing, which I really appreciated. He seems to have vision tempered with a certain amount of reality and even-handedness, which I think would be good for the Corcoran.
"He isn't exciting in the sense of somebody like Walter Hopps," added Nodal, "but he's an even keel, and I think he has a feeling for artists and what they do. He'd be a good person to try to heal that place." Hopps is a former Corcoran director who was admired for his ability to discover new artistic talent.
Though Levy has never worked in a museum, those who know him believe he is just what the Corcoran needs. "He'll be a breath of fresh air in Washington," said a colleague at the New School.
"It's a bold choice," admitted Bill McSweeny, a trustee on the search committee. "He's innovative, but seasoned," said Barbaralee Diamondstein, a New York art writer, who, like some other friends of Levy, refused to speak further before he is confirmed.
Their caution, and his, suggest that Levy really wants this difficult -- some say impossible -- job. His salary is unknown, but the previous director, Christina Orr-Cahall, made something more than $120,000 a year, plus perks. "I hope this guy is a gifted genius who can do what they need," said a former Corcoran curator who didn't want to be identified. "Maybe the fact that he's not an insider is good."
Though Levy is not a practicing visual artist, his parents, Edgar and Lucille Levy, were deeply involved in the New York art world of the '30s and '40s, he as a painter of limited success, she as a painter and commercial artist who largely supported the family with her book illustrations for Simon and Schuster and her murals, including several at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
The Levy family's closest friends were artist Dorothy Dehner and her first husband, sculptor David Smith, after whom Levy was named. "I was Aunt Dorothy, and David was Uncle Smith," recalled Dehner with delight. She also recalled celebrating David's birth with some bad red wine and chocolate marshmallow cookies -- "all we had to celebrate with," she said. She added that Levy had shown what she felt was great artistic promise as a child, but that his parents pinned their hopes on his younger brother Joel, who did become a landscape painter and now shows in New York.
Levy lives in a two-story, art-filled loft in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, which boasts both a large piano for jazz sessions and a harpsichord he built himself and plays expertly. His favorite spare-time activity is the East Thirteenth Street Band, which he founded with pop artist Rivers, and which still performs in various nightspots around New York.
He and his wife, Janet, who are separated, have two grown children.